Not long ago, Crawford Lorritts offered the opening address for the Moody Bible Institute’s Founder’s Week Celebration. In his message, he explained that the Bible must be the context from which Christians live, not the culture. The emotions that the culture stirs up in individuals must be set aside to look at the truth. Truth doesn’t change, but our emotions change how we respond to it. I couldn’t agree more.
But how is the Bible supposed to be the context of our lives when our current culture is so far removed from when the Scriptures were written? We have a 21st century understanding of the world and reading even the New Testament with a modern point of view can be difficult to fully grasp. After all, why are hair and hats worth discussing in 1 Corinthians 11? How is it that slavery still exists after the resurrection (Colossians 3:22-25)? And what’s the harm of having a replica of a statue (Ephesians 19:26)?
There are realities of the early church that are vastly different from the realities of today.
We cannot assume that we can fully understand the core of what is being communicated unless we know the circumstances of the original message. Who was delivering the message and to whom was the message delivered? Were there any specific situations or issues that were being addressed? If so, why?
These are important questions, especially when reading the epistles. The Apostle Paul delivered his message to be received by the audience he was addressing. He used images and examples that they would understand and relate to in their own lives. By his second missionary journey, he had developed a pattern of sharing the gospel in his ministry journeys. Upon entering a new city, Paul and his traveling companions would enter the synagogue to share with the Jews that the Scriptures had been fulfilled in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Acts 17:2-3). As a “Jew of Jews,” Paul had a heart first for his own people to know that Jesus was the promised Messiah. His message was rejected by most of the Jews and he was banned from the synagogue. Paul would then take the good news to the Gentiles of the city (Acts 13:46-47).
In Acts 17, Paul arrived in Athens and was “provoked” in his spirit by the sheer number of idols in the city. When the opportunity presented itself to speak with some of the thought leaders of the day, he gave a culturally-specific sermon that was tailormade for the listeners on Mars Hill. For those who can remember learning about ancient Greece in history class, you may remember the pictures of all the temples and altars to the numerous gods that provides a backdrop of what was taking place while Paul was there. The historical context lends richness to our current understanding of the message.
The gospel may have been contextualized for the Athenians, but the good news is just as relevant for our culture. The ancient idols may have been carved from stone, but today’s idols are just as numerous. And the sneering response of the philosophers to the resurrection of Christ is no different from the reactions given today.
There is much we can learn from the cultures of another era that applies to our own culture.
Reading the epistles, you sense how Paul was equally intentional with each letter he wrote to the different churches. If we are observant, we will discover the specific issues and challenges that Paul was addressing in each letter. When we learn more about the context and the culture of the original recipient of the letters, we realize the essential truth that Paul is conveying. Paul was teaching the early church how to live a life worthy of the gospel. Because the letters were written many years ago, it is crucial to understand Biblical context, because the practices may have changed over time, but the principles have not.
The timeless principles can be then be contextualized for today’s culture.
When the norms of today are the foundation of a person’s life, it will be difficult for him or her to see the biblical truth through that “lens.” It will be hard for him or her to live biblically, much less have the Bible be the foundation for living. As Bible teachers, we can help broaden students’ perspective of the Scriptures by helping them discover the biblical context first, and then they will be able to accurately discern the truth that is being portrayed.
Jesus said to those who believed in Him, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31-32).
The word “continue” is the root word for “abide.” This is ongoing remaining; never departing. What truth! John wrote the words Jesus spoke, so the original hearers would be free from the cultural norms and so can we!
Through the power of the Holy Spirit, the truth of the Bible can be the foundation of Christians of every era.